by Ryven Cedrylle
13th Age’s move from a Skill-based system to a Background-based system has far greater reach and power than is immediately evident on the first pass. The mechanics can handle a multitude of interesting nuances better than the standard d20 skill lists despite being a much smaller amount of information. In order to make the best use of Backgrounds, there are two key concepts to understand and master.
1) Backgrounds reify story. If you don’t like the word reify, try thingify – they’re synonyms. Backgrounds add mechanical weight to the story you give your character. They’re sort of the 13th Age Higgs boson to use a weird metaphor. You were a low-level imperial soldier before you struck off on your own? Cool. Imperial Soldier +2. You ran an inn before other adventurers showed up and burned it down? Awesome. Resentful Barkeep +3. Anything you did before taking up the adventurer’s mantle is easily converted to a Background.
2) Backgrounds can’t break the game. Go back and read that again. Get it good and deep in your head. Many problems with skill lists in other d20 systems showed up in skill substitutions. It might be super easy to get a crazy Arcana score and then take feats that let you use it for Diplomacy, Bluff, Rope Use, whatever. Suddenly you’re better at all these skills than the people who are supposed to be good at them and are going the normal way to get there! 13th Age’s hard +5 cap prevents that. Skills rolls stay within a predictable range of bonuses and while having a bonus is still better than not having one, not being ‘trained’ in a skill (by having a relevant Background) isn’t going to shut you down.
What about Extra Backgrounding? What if one character has 20 Background points and everyone else has 8? Isn’t “more points” better? The answer is no.. sort of. A character with a single overly generic Adventurer +5 Background could sit down at a table with another character who has 400 Background points in 80 different Backgrounds, but if every roll is limited to a single +5 bump due to Background they’re effectively equal in mechanical power. Neither of these situations are recommended of course, but the hyperbole is helpful in pointing out the resiliency of the system.
Armed now with this perspective, here’s a few interesting tricks you can do with Backgrounds to ramp up the detail, flexibility and fun of your 13th Age games.
Item and Relationship Backgrounds
Backgrounds reify story – any story. They point out the things that help your character succeed at adventuring. Why can’t Backgrounds be items, then? This was exactly the case at one of the official PAX East demos this year. A new player picked up the Bard sheet and after a moment of consideration wrote “Eldritch Flute of Destruction +4” as one of his Backgrounds. After a moment’s explanation to the table, the bard proceeded to tunnel through walls, bend bars, blow open treasure chests and generally be a one-man wrecking crew with his custom “magic item.” It wasn’t helpful in combat of course (you need to get a good twelve, maybe fourteen measures of music out of the thing before stuff really gets shaking) but that didn’t matter. He had a ton of fun laying waste to the dungeon and had there been an actual dwarven miner in the party, they would have been on about equal terms. Consider also a wizard whose backstory may not itself be very interesting (standard academy training and all) but shows up with a Crystal Orb of Scrying +3, a Robe of Illusions +3 and some Ritual Incense +2 as her gear!
If Backgrounds can be items, they can also be other characters. Throw Peter Parker into 13th Age and one of his Backgrounds is bound to be “Uncle Ben”, probably somewhere at +3 to +5, for all those times he needs to call on his dear departed uncle’s wisdom. For a slightly more in-genre example, Mulan might have a “Mushu +2” Background for when she needs to steal a small item, make someone laugh or start a fire.
If the number of Backgrounds available to a character and the resulting power of that character aren’t mathematically related, a GM could allow rolls during non-combat scenes to create multiple temporary Backgrounds as resources for the party. The ranger tracks some desired quarry through the woods and since her roll was well over what was needed for the tracking effort, earns a “Clear Path +3” temporary Background. Later, the mummy escapes from the tomb and the PCs need to hightail it to safety. The Ranger probably doesn’t need any help navigating through the trees but the Cleric and Paladin clad in plate mail would probably love to use that +3 to further secure their getaways. Before the group goes back the Wizard researches the mummy’s magic, picking up a “The Mummy’s Illusions +2” temporary Background. That Background saves the Fighter’s hide when confronted with what is supposedly a GIGANTIC red dragon. These sorts of little boosts are nice rewards since 13th Age isn’t terribly interested in mundane treasure and the economics of arms manufacturing.
A tip of the hat is due here to Quinn Murphy and his excellent post on the idea, which you can find here. The idea, in short, is that some Backgrounds might be negatively applied to represent curses or long-term injuries. The adventurer who lands the last blow on the night hag sustains a “Stuttering -2” Background that comes into play whenever social skills are needed. Whether the Stuttering Background replaces the character’s normal Background or merely stacks on top is going to be a call by the GM but could work either way. Perhaps a player dropped to 0 HP and who fails two death saves also racks up a negative background such as “Cracked Rib -2” or “Broken Foot -4” to represent chronic injury. As a quick and dirty fix assume each such Background drops by 1 during a full heal, though a GM should feel free to play with the rules a little so long as everyone knows up front how things are going to work.
A 13th Age game that is flexible with its Backgrounds can even handle more complicated ideas like sanity loss. Imagine a party of heroes staggering out of some portal somewhere. They’ve seen things Mortals Were Not Meant To Know and faced Evils From Beyond Time. You don’t just walk away from that unscathed. Any hero who is down at least two Recoveries needs to make a standard save. If down more than 6 Recoveries, it’s a hard save. Alternatively, have everyone make a standard save but include whatever negative Backgrounds they picked up along the way. Whatever the method, if a character fails that save, he must rewrite one of his Backgrounds to reflect the experience. Thus the Wizard with the “Giant Grimoire +2” now has a Tome of Forbidden Magic +2, the “Treasure Seeker +1” Thief now “Smells Gold And Danger +1” and the “Eager Evangelist +4” Cleric has become an “Apocalyptic Prophet +4.” The characters have maintained their numerical strength, but the change in Background wording affects how skill rolls are explained. Even more amusing, the incremental advance these characters earn could be explained as being ‘unlocked’ or ‘uncovered’ by their slow descent into madness!
Whether you take all or some of these ideas back to your table, the bottom line is to remember that Backgrounds shouldn’t be static. Backgrounds represent vital information about your character’s behaviors, beliefs and situations. Use them boldly to give meaning to the events of your journeys.
A 13th Age/Archmage System hack by ASH LAW
The lich-king Mordred is on the throne, Merlin is imprisoned, and Arthur and his knights are over a century dead. Undead grail-knights roam the land dispensing the king’s ‘justice’, and plague-zombies terrorize the peasants. Welcome to the 13 Knights of Camelot – a setting for 13th Age’s Archmage System.
This ‘hack’ allows you to play as renegade knights and freedom fighters under the tutelage of Morgana (or called by the Lady of the Lake, or summoned by Merlin). Here are the important things to know about the setting…
ARTHUR IS DEAD
All of Arthur’s knights are dead, and Arthur himself is dead. After the Battle of Camlann, Arthur was carried by the last of his surviving knights into the care of the Lady of the Lake. Arthur remains in a magical slumber on the Isle of Avalon. It has been a generation since Camelot burned. The legends of the round table live on and give hope to the people of Britain.
MORDRED IS UNDEAD
Mordred survived the Battle of Camlann, though like his father was mortally wounded. Mordred was carried by Sir Agrivain to the care of his mother Morgana who used the magic of the grail to grant him a permanent suspension of his final death – making him undead. King Mordred then used the power of the grail to create the undead grail-knights.
THE GRAIL IS CORRUPTED
The grail is an ancient artifact, predating the coming of men to Britain. It holds the power of life but has become corrupted by the evil of Morderd to become an instrument of undeath. The grail causes monsters to arise, crops to wither, and plagues to run rife.
MORDRED’S CONTROL IS FAR FROM COMPLETE
The rebel kingdoms of Cornwall and Devon are still free, though they must fight to remain so. Together they are known as Dumnonia.
Across the Celtic Sea from Dumnonia lies Dyfed, where the Council of Druids calls upon ancient magics to animate the trees.
The forests of Mercia and Gwynned are teeming with the Fae, returned to Britain at last.
London is an independent city (more on that next).
Mordred controls Powys, Gwent, Wessex, Sussex, Kent, East Anglia, Northumbria, Strathclyde, Fortriu, and the Orkneys …(don’t worry – there is a map). Control is perhaps too strong a word – it is the area from which he extracts tithes, terrorizes the people with his undead grail knights and zombie army, and maintains castles and keeps. A lot of people who live in his lands bravely resist his rule, spurred on by memories of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.
THE GODS ARE REAL, AND WALK THE LAND
Bran of the Ravens rules London, though he remains but a head buried under the Tower of London. His birds fly far, and see much.
The war deity Mórrígan Queen of Terrors leads her warp-spasming armies across the Irish sea from the Kingdom of Connaught to invade Britain, and already controls Dal Riata.
The new god’s priests must contend with a resurgence of the power of the old gods.
MAGIC DOESN’T GIVE YOU WHAT YOU WANT
Morgana’s machinations have returned the throne to her family line from her half-brother Arthur. Mordred the undying is far from what she wanted and she lives in exile on the Isle of Man, protected from her son’s vengeance by her fading magic.
Nimue (the lady of the lake) trapped Merlin, and freed the ancient magic. Now she finds herself living through an age of constant warfare and monsters.
Merlin is trapped in a cave of crystal, able only to communicate via dreams. His power has flowed from him, drained by the land from which he once called it.
THERE IS LOTS TO EXPLORE
I’ve left bits of the map empty. I don’t tell you about Ireland really – what is going on in the kingdoms that are not Connaught? For that matter what is happening in Europe now that the old magic has returned? Even those bits I have described briefly here are bare-bones as they can be. Go invent, explore, be awesome.
Map by ASH LAW
**** CLASSES ****
Classes in this setting are restricted to six choices:
(British, Norse, and Irish)
All knights (save those from the Orkney Islands) are built as Fighters. Only humans can choose to be knights.
(Fae and Changelings)
Those fae who are not magicians are built as Rangers but MUST start with Fey Queen’s Enchantments, Ranger ex Cathedral, and Ranger’s Pet.
(Orcadians, Norse, and Irish)
Pagan bezerkers or pagan knights from the Orkney Islands are built as Barbarians. If you are playing a knight from the Orkney Islands you build your character as a Barbarian but gain the chivalric aspect advantages of knighthood (more on that later).
(British, Orcadians, Norse, and Irish)
Peasants and woodsmen and common soldiers are built as Rangers but may NOT choose Fey Queen’s Enchantments, Ranger ex Cathedral, Ranger’s Pet.
(British, Orcadians, Norse, Irish, Fae, and Changelings)
Magicians who follow the old ways are built as Bards.
(Fae and Changelings)
Fae who come from deep in the enchanted woods of Mercia and Gwynned are built as Rogues.
**** RACES ****
Races are likewise restricted:
THE BRITISH are known for their mental and physical toughness so are either Humans or are re-skinned Dwarf-Forged (pick which when creating your character).
THE ORCADIANS and THE NORSE are known for their size and ferocity and so use the rules for Half-Orcs or Dwarves (pick which when creating your character).
THE IRISH who are blessed by the Mórrígan are reskinned Dark Elves (don’t call the racial power ‘Cruelty’ – it is ‘Warp Spasm’).
THE FAE are reskinned Gnomes, and CHANGELINGS (fae raised by humans or humans stolen by the fae) are reskinned Wood Elves. Fae can not be knights.
*** ICONS ****
The icons rules work slightly differently. Instead of the icons being people they are aspects (both good and bad) of chivalric behaviour. Instead of representing powerful external figures the chivalric aspects represent world-views. Rolling a 6 or a 5 works normally, but instead of help from an external figure coming to help it represents divine aid from either the new god or the old gods. The aspects of chivalric behaviour are set up so that it is possible to have conflicts within a character – Lancelot for example had a negative relationship with ‘vital’ (falling in love with the queen no matter the outcome) but that led him into conflict with his positive relationship with his ‘faith’ (he made certain oaths to his king which he betrayed by following his heart).
** CHIVALRIC ASPECTS **
CERTAINTY – Positive: There is good and there is evil, and you stand in judgement over both. Negative: Deliberation is always needed, even if it means opportunity might pass by.
COURAGE – Positive: Do what is right even if it is dangerous, tedious, or unglamorous. Negative: Do what will gain you glory and honor in the eyes of others.
DEVOTION – Positive: Spend time and effort in support of a goal, pursue that goal no matter the cost. Negative: Know when to quit.
EXPEDIENCE – Positive: Take the path of least resistance in pursuit of your goals. Negative: When pursuing your goals follow the rules even if it costs you success.
FAITH – Positive: Keep your promises and vows, and hold oaths as sacred things. Negative: Extract vows from others and take hostage that which they care about, it is the only way to ensure peace.
GENEROSITY – Positive: Share not just of your wealth also share your time and experience, even if the generosity is unlikely to be repaid. Negative: Your honor demands vengeance.
GRACE – Positive: Protect the weak, use might for right – even if it means losing face. Negative: Show no mercy.
GRANDEUR – Positive: Never show weakness or fear, always look your best in order to inspire others. Negative: Respect and/or obey only those of higher station.
HOPE – Positive: Inspire others, show that there is good and light in the world. Negative: Be realistic about how dark the world is.
JUSTICE – Positive: Uphold standards of behaviour by your good example, and be an exemplar of virtue. Negative: Every law is equally important, even those that may lead to bad outcomes must be enforced.
NOBILITY – Positive: Uphold convictions at all times, even when nobody is watching. Negative: One’s fate is preordained… if you are born to glory so be it, if you are born to poverty there you must stay. Your actions are just playing out a pre-written script so you really don’t have to accept responsibility.
STRENGTH – Positive: Wise application of force is a swift-working tool. Negative: Might makes right, even when that might is used cruelly.
TITLE – Positive: Along with the entitlements of any kind of power come responsibilities to those with less power. Negative: Hold those of lesser station to high standards of behaviour, uphold the social order.
VITALITY – Positive: Live life to the full, wisely enjoy the many privileges that you have. Negative: Follow your heart in the present, no matter the outcome of your actions in the future.
** KNIGHTS AND CHIVALRY **
Those who have taken knightly vows can call upon chivalric aspects in battle. Once per battle knights can roll their relationship dice. Any 6s may be used to add +2 to a roll, any 5s can be used to add +1 to a roll but will involve a chivalric quest quest.
** CHIVALRIC QUESTS **
Spending a 5 in battle means that the knight feels a need to undertake a quest to prove their worth to the one god (or the many gods), and the quest is always directly tied to the chivalric aspect that they used. Failure in the quest or failure to undertake the quest means the knight can not call upon his chivalric aspects in or out of battle until he or she next levels up.
** FEMALE KNIGHTS **
Yeah yeah, traditionally knights were male and females were relegated to roles as noble ladies or enchantresses. The 13 Knights of Camelot has zombies, grail-powered undead knights, fae, gods who walk among mortals, etc. Why not women knights? It is only logical that the Lady of the Lake would call to all who can take up a sword.
**** DUMNONIA ****
A good starting point for your campaign are the twin rebel kingdoms of Dumnonia – Devon and Cornwall. Important places in Dumnonia are Stonehenge, the Isle of Avalon and the walled cathedral city of Exeter.
The landscape is a mixture of dairy farms and orchards (from which comes a very hard cider known as ‘Scrumpy’ – there are no roman roads in Dumnonia and the local joke is that once the Romans reached the land of scrumpy they could no longer build in a straight line), but further from civilization Dumnonia is a mix of ancient forest and windswept moorland. Local non-farming industries are tin and silver mining and fishing.
Stonehenge is an important site of magical power, guarded by a cadre of magicians and enchantresses – and by priests of the ‘new god’ who recognise its value in protecting Dumnonia.
Exeter is a walled city built around a port and containing both a castle and a cathedral – servants of the ‘new god’ take refuge in the city in times of trouble.
The Isle of Avalon is a magically hidden island where King Arthur slumbers, recovering from his wounds.
The two kings are King Drogo who rules from Tintagel Castle on the northern coast of Cornwall and King Mapp who rules from Okehampton Castle in the middle of the mystic and windswept moorland known as Dartmoor.
**** ADVENTURE SEEDS ****
MORDRED STRIKES – The stinking undead hordes of King Mordred are massing in Wessex for a big push into Dumnonia, and Stonehenge is somehow missing! Where is the henge, and why is it missing?
TOURNAMENT – The Lady of the Lake has found Arthur’s magical scabbard to and has decided to give it away to the most worthy knight. She has arranged a tournament on the cathedral green of Exeter.
Excalibur’s Scabbard (belt). The legendary sword-belt of King Arthur, it prevents wounds from bleeding. Always: Any sword sheathed in this scabbard does an extra dice-type of damage on its first successful hit (if it would normally do d6 damage it will do d8 on its first successful hit). Recharge 16: When you become staggered you may immediately heal using a recovery. Quirk: Careless with material possessions.
COURTLY LOVE – A fellow knight has fallen in love with one of the player characters and seeks to prove that love by questing to prove his or her love.
**** MONSTERS ****
GIANTS – A staple of Arthurian legends, giants are especially prevalent in Cornwall (Jack the Giant Killer is a Cornish tale).
SAXONS & VIKINGS – Almost any humanoid monster can be reskinned to become a raider from the continent.
DRAGONS – Another staple of knightly adventure, dragons come in many shapes and sizes.
FAIRIES – The fairy folk come in many shapes and sizes, almost anything can be reskinned as a fairy monster.
UNDEAD – Mordred’s forces are almost entirely undead, though some living knights serve the dark king too.
[[For more on the art used here look up the pre-raphaelite brotherhood – a bunch of artists in the 1800s decided they really liked drawing rpg art, over 100 years before there were any rpg books to draw the covers of. The map of Britain and the shield of Dumnonia are by me, ASH LAW. I also wrote the words. The actual historical area of Dumnonia I’ve extended to the east to include part of Somerset, and I’ve changed or avoided some place names for the ease of our American cousins who may not be used to Welsh, Irish, or Scottish spellings. The shield is a combination of Cornish and Devonian flags with the flag of Somerset as an inescutcheon and an ermine pattern to suggest a link to the duchy of Brittany which lies south across the water.]]